Tied on points atop the La Liga table, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid go head-to-head Saturday in the first major European football clash of 2016; encounters between the two sides at the Camp Nou have taken on greater air importance since Atletico clinched the title there on the final day of the 2013-14 season.
Heading into the match, Barcelona is riding a 25-match win streak in all competitions; their last loss, 2-1 to Sevilla, was all the way back at the beginning of October.
But Barcelona is coming up against the team with La Liga’s best defensive record: Atletico has conceded just eight goals in 21 matches this season.
Barça is also unbeaten in their last 11 league clashes with Atleti, so it’s difficult to see Diego Simeone’s team coming away with all three points. But the Argentine is perfectly fine with fighting a war of attrition and will almost certainly send his team out with instructions to smother Barcelona’s creativity and nullify their attack. Simeone seems to manage out a season just as he manages out a game, soaking up pressure, staying in contention, and waiting for the slightest of opportunity to gain an edge.
While the teams are even with 48 points each, Barça has a game in hand and is the heavy favorite to win the La Liga title this season. But Atleti were continually written off during the 2013-14 season, when they went on to win their first title in 16 years and came within 90 seconds of lifting the Champions League title.
Simeone’s team is in a far better position to play spoiler to Barça’s title party than Real Madrid and will be ready to pounce on the slightest error from the defending champions. Despite coming away with a 3-1 win, Barcelona had a tough time of it in the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao this week; A similar display against Simeone’s team could have far more dire consequences.
It’s still too early in the season for this match to be anything like a title-decider, but both teams have a chance to make a big statement on Saturday: Barcelona can boost their growing air of invincibility with a win, while even a draw will allow Atletico to once again demonstrate their ability to upset the status quo and plant seeds of doubt by putting a dent in the Blaugrana’s veneer.
Barça forward Neymar picked up a slight knock to his foot in Barça’s 3-1 Copa del Rey victory on Wednesday, but will play anyway according to Enrique.